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Embracing the Unknown in Rio de Janeiro

By Carmen Maria Machado

Jan 12, 2021

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Photo by Marchello74/Shutterstock

On a last-minute trip to Rio de Janeiro, author Carmen Maria Machado luxuriates in beach feasts, practices small talk—and confronts her travel anxiety.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Many years ago, I started getting emails for other Carmen Machados. One in Chicago, another in Arizona, another in Florida. I’ve gotten a photo of a daffy, grinning pit bull in a Santa Claus hat and endless reminders to update gym memberships and once, alarmingly, a discharge report from a Midwestern ER. I also get emails in Portuguese for an unclear number of Brazilian Carmen Machados. Sometimes the emails appear to be about real estate or finance; sometimes, students emailing their professor. I say “appear” because I am not Brazilian and don’t speak Portuguese. I used to try and use translation software to create some sort of response—“I am not the Carmen Machado you’re looking for!”—but it didn’t seem to make a difference, and so I gave up.

When I learned I was to go to Rio in two days, I immediately emailed my kid brother, a seasoned international traveler. He suggested I check out some stunning falls near the border of Paraguay, and when I looked them up, I discovered that, according to the State Department’s travel advisories, Americans were not supposed to travel within 100 miles of the Brazilian border of any country. I also discovered that there was a yellow fever outbreak, and anyone visiting needed to be vaccinated. I drove from my residency in Philadelphia two hours into the next state to a travel clinic to get the yellow fever vaccine that, apparently, one needs because—and I read this fact out loud to myself more than once—yellow fever can kill you.

(Once, years ago, when I was afraid to go skydiving, a friend of mine assured me that it wouldn’t kill me; I wasn’t going to die. It could kill me, I said to her. I could die. “Yeah,” she said, “but if you tell yourself you’re not gonna die every single time you’re afraid it’ll happen, you can only be wrong exactly once. Those are pretty good odds.”)

I printed out all of my documents in triplicate, hid them everywhere. I packed a travel guide, phrasebook, travel insurance. I sprayed my clothes with a special mosquito-repelling formula that required I dry my clothes outside, overnight. I arrived at JFK four hours early, deeply embarrassed about my lack of chill. I landed in Rio midmorning, then sat in the airport for two hours, nursing a coffee I’d ordered by accident and making a very detailed list of how much a cab should cost, how to negotiate my fare, whether or not tipping was appropriate. You’re not going to die, I thought. You might learn something new. My hand had a slight tremor; I pressed the pen down into the page as hard as I could.

In the cab, I realized my jaw was locked from tightness and massaged my face as the city opened up in front of me.

I am a Cancer—a fiercely loyal homebody, a lover of the water—and so upon reaching Rio I went straight to the ocean. The cab dropped me off in front of a large seaside hotel in Ipanema—full of tourists, many speaking English—where I left my suitcase and wandered onto the beach. At the water’s edge, the movement of the ocean softened my whole body. A sign warned against swimming, but people still did just that. The sea was cool, the greenish-blue of a predawn night sky. As the waves pulled back from the shore, sand was drawn into their translucent bodies, where it gathered and swirled like tiny galaxies before being scattered in every direction. Over and over these universes gathered and dispersed. I stood there until the afternoon waned and the shadowed lengthened and the sunbathers began to thin out.

That night, when I went to a churrascaria, I sat by myself and remembered the first time I’d ever gone to a restaurant on my own: in college, to a little café on the canal in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown. I ate oysters and drank wine and looked out over the water. Here, smartly dressed waiters milled around with steaming swords of meat, and I sat there with my wine and a little card that I could turn over—green for more, red for no more. One man came over with a massive bottle—large as a toddler—slung in his arms. When I gestured toward it, he poured me a tiny amount in the bottom of a glass. I sipped it. It tasted odd, grassy and medicinal. He poured me a whole glass. It was cachaça, a drink made of sugarcane; so strong and unfamiliar I felt like a teenager encountering hard liquor for the first time. I ate four different animals and puffy pastries filled with cheese and drank wine and had more cachaça. When I left, it was dark. Do not walk alone at night, the State Department had warned me, but I did. I walked back to my hotel alert as a sparrow.

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A few years back, when I traveled to Cuba with my kid brother to see our family, I found myself struggling with the little Spanish I knew. In Rio, the Spanish that had failed me in Cuba was, suddenly, flooding into my mouth. I could, as it turns out, check into a hotel, order food, get directions, tell people about myself and my family. But of course Spanish is not the language of Brazil; Portuguese is, and unfortunately for me, my name is about as Brazilian as they come. Upon hearing it, everyone I met let loose a flood of words I could not understand, though they felt vaguely familiar. Great, I thought, a new language in which I can be a failure. Stressed, I began to mash together Spanish and Portuguese. There is a name for this, someone told me later: Portañol. I started with Portuguese and ended in Spanish, or started in Spanish and ended in Portuguese, or started in one and ended up in some language no one on Earth spoke. I combined words, dropped letters, inverted the little grammar I knew.

Later, I went back to the beach for real, in my bathing suit.  Even though my hotel was distinctly meant for tourists, the shores of Ipanema were crowded with locals; they teemed with people and vendors like the stands of a baseball game. I loved how different it looked from an American beach. I loved the vendors and the fact that fat women were wearing string bikinis and that men were playing soccer and little naked babies were crawling over the sand and round pigeons were wandering around, looking for scraps. It felt chaotic, friendly. When you looked down the length of the beach, Morro Dois Irmãos—Two Brothers Mountain—rose out of the horizon like an ancient monster, like Godzilla.

The man who rented me my chair spoke a little English and asked me something that was unclear—something about a goat? He pantomimed, and I realized he was asking me about my horoscope. Cancer, I told him (loyal, homebody, water) and when he didn’t understand I made pinchers with my hands. He laughed, and then asked me for my name. Carmen, I said. He said something in Portuguese, and I explained that I spoke no Portuguese but some Spanish, and he responded with a little bit of Spanish.

As the waves pulled back from the shore, sand was drawn into their translucent bodies, where it gathered and swirled like tiny galaxies before being scattered in every direction. 

I have never found small talk to be burdensome or difficult or tedious; on the contrary, I love it. When I was a kid, and I had a chance to go out into the world with my dad—rare moments when he was not working and let me come with him to the hardware store or a local pub, where he always ordered me a root beer—I always admired the way he forged tiny, fleeting relationships with strangers. This moment on the beach felt like that: kind, and easy. A tiny, wobbling bridge connecting one human being to another, if only for an afternoon.

Against the water, I did what I wanted to do: I read and ate. A man came by carrying a cooler and a tiny stove and cooked a skewer of hallumi over the coals until it was browned. He rolled it in oregano and handed it to me, and it was salty and warm. On my lap was a copy of Little Women, which I hadn’t read since I was a child but was re-reading now in order to write a commissioned essay for the novel’s 150th anniversary. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for adulthood than that. The book grew damp and full of sand; little drips of oil landed in its pages and revealed text on the opposite side of the paper. I ordered more grilled hallumi. Then, a young coconut, which was hacked open with a machete in front of me. Then, a frozen açai bowl topped with strawberries. Then, empanadas. I realized I’d never been on a beach and felt full before.

For the rest of the day, when he passed by me, the man waved at me and made pincers with his hands.

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When I asked the man working behind the hotel desk about the Images of the Unconscious Museum, he tried to dissuade me from going. He suggested more popular tourist destinations in different parts of the city. (I had already visited Christ the Redeemer, delivered there by a train that pulled me up a mountain. Monkeys ate jackfruit in the trees. When we got to the top, the spread of art deco Jesus’ arms was obscured by fog. People teemed around the base of the statue, and when the opaqueness thinned for a moment, everyone turned upwards, snapped selfies. Birds—starlings, I think—swooped and dipped around, and I caught a photo of one perfectly silhouetted against the mist. I had, also, already visited the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, which was as magnificent as advertised and looked like a scene from Beauty and the Beast.) I felt stubborn; I’d looked up interesting destinations in Rio before I had left and this was the one that I kept returning to in my mind. The fact that I was being discouraged from going was surprising and made the museum even more appealing. You aren’t going to die, I thought. You might be ready for something new.

Did I want to go to the museum? he asked. I did, I said. He asked again: Did I need to go to the museum? I had no response—after all, how do you answer a question like that?—but I repeated my request for a taxi until he ordered one.

The museum was miles from the hotel, in the middle of a favela far from the touristy part of the city. Upon entering the complex where it was housed, the taxi driver seemed nervous to drop me off, but I insisted. Inside, the signs were entirely in Portuguese. Armed with a translation app, I learned that the museum was founded in the ’50s by psychiatrist Nise da Silveira and held more than 300,000 examples of art therapy from an era when the alternatives for those with mental illness were things like lobotomies. Jung visited from Zurich, once upon a time, and was by all accounts deeply impressed with the program.

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App in hand, I read every plaque, flipped through every book. I noticed that many patients drew houses. The translations read like poetry. “This house never existed. Fernando’s house was a dream house.” “His coconut trees [portray] the feeling of longing for one of his dear sisters.” “Clay [is] the mediator of dialogue.” “Anita came to bloom.” I felt like I was crossing many thresholds at once—time, language, meaning, geography, my own anxieties. I was not dying. I was learning something new.

I was there for hours and left as twilight was pooling in the streets. In the cab, I updated the front of my Portuguese phrasebook with the phrases I was using the most. A conta, por favor. The check, please. Quanto custa? How much does this cost? Mais um, por favor. One more, please. Posso acariciar seu cochorro? May I pet your dog?

Every time I looked up from the page, the view was deliciously unfamiliar. I could have been going anywhere.

That night, I made my way to a restaurant that promised oysters. I held up one finger to the hostess, who guided me to a table on the curb where I stood, sucking the fruity bodies from their shells and drinking wine. After a long while, a group of people gestured and asked—well, pantomimed—if they could share my table. I nodded, and told them, clearly but haltingly, that I did not speak Portuguese. One of them got very excited. “English?” she said. “Yes,” I replied. “American?” she said. I nodded. “Philadelphia,” I said, but pronounced as I imagined it would be in Portuguese. Filadélfia. Fee-lah-del-fee-ah.

They told me they were friends, meeting up after work. One was a consultant, another a teacher. One of them had a loud brassy voice that reminded me of an old family friend; a smoker’s voice. Another spoke English and communicated what I was saying to her friends. The Brazilian election—the one that would elect Jair Bolsonaro, a fascist—was on the horizon. I’d been instructed by folks familiar with Brazil that it would be some combination of unwise and unsafe to bring the election up in conversation with Brazilian people. But this woman talked about it unprompted. “We are very afraid,” she said. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

I left the hotel on the water. I surprised myself when I did this, when I went up the mountains to the neighborhood of Santa Theresa. I’d gotten so comfortable at the beach, and I’d come to know the roads into the city. I could traverse the neighborhood of Ipanema without looking at my map. I’d developed a sense for how the buildings came together; the signs in storefront windows; the order of the trinket vendors near the sand. When I am comfortable it is hard to move me; I’m like an old hound in that way. And still, I left, because I knew it was important to continue to move through my anxieties. You have to take the momentum where you can get it. I wouldn’t die. I would learn something new.

In Santa Theresa, the mist and heavy dampness wasn’t burned away like it was at the coast. It reminded me of a time when a friend took me up into the Berkeley hills, and we looked over the obscenely beautiful and expensive urban landscape that had caused me so much grief when I’d moved there for no reason three years before. (I hadn’t died. I’d learned something new.) The hotel was an old residence, a manor with many rooms and vintage statues and an air of burnished refinement, and a large gray cat that slept loose-boned on the furniture. From this elevation I could see all of Rio: the moon-shape of her, the other houses clustered into the mountainside like mushrooms, the drop into the valley, the glittering sweep of the city and, at its edge, the white beach like salt on the rim of a glass.

I walked the neighborhood, eating meaty bowls of feijoada and sweet bites of bobó de camarão, pulling myself up slick, steep cobblestone roads furry with moss. I fell a few times, landing on my butt after my sneakers gave way. I took photos of the endless street art: Pele and Frida and dragons painted on concrete walls. 

And—though no one will ever call me fearless—when I had a chance to practice what I’d been learning, I took it. I breathed deeply and asked someone, in Portuguese, if I could pet their dog. They said yes, and I did.

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